36 Hours at Sundance: One Great Movie + Kevin Smith, Social Media Genius

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For film brats, having a movie at Sundance is pretty much the holy grail. It's where indie and hip go mainstream overnight, but it's okay, because you sold your film at Sundance. And dude, don't get me wrong. It IS okay. I'd probably let someone snip off a digit or two if it meant my movie would premiere at the Eccles with throngs of people willing to wait for hours in the snow for a mere chance at a seat on a cold January night.

PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 23: General view of the atmosphere on Main Street during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2011 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

My first Sundance was the 2003 festival -- I was freshly out of film school, and went with delusions of premiering my recently wrapped short film there the following year. I didn't know many people in the film industry. The couple of people that I'd interned for were mostly people I'd be too terrified to approach in public...the likes of George Clooney and Harvey Weinstein (or more accurately, their assistants). But I drove up with three friends, crashed at a time-share condo belonging to the mother of the actor who'd starred in my short, and waitlisted for every movie on the 2003 roster, catching such festival darlings as Thirteen, Pieces of April, Irreversible, and All The Real Girls, and the shorts of then fledgling directors Angela Robinson, Seith Mann, and Frank E. Flowers all of which catapulted them into feature films the following year.

All and all, it was a pretty good festival. I left feeling all aglow with the indie spirit, and returned home ready to pound the pavement and find my first real Hollywood job.

Cut to 2011. (Get it? CUT TO? LIKE A MOVIE!) We arrive in Park City late the first Friday of the festival, knowing we've only got until Sunday morning to take it all in. Our host informs us that despite having tickets, she was turned away from two films that afternoon, so there's really no point in waitlisting for any of the premieres that night unless we want to drive back down to the MultiPlexes in Salt Lake City from whence we came.

So instead we pour over the festival catalogue. The selections are juicy this year, a solid mix of celebrity passion projects and real-old-fashioned-indie-films, and there is a lot I want to see. Unfortunately, by noon the following day, it becomes abundantly clear that we'll be lucky if we can even catch ONE film at the sold-out festival. Which we did, manage to catch one.

And although I recently mentioned it in my list of top five favorite movies because it's that good, it's worth gushing over just a little more.

The Music Never Stopped is the directoral debut of Producer Jim Kohlberg and man, did he conduct that symphony in perfect harmony. He guided his stellar cast to perfection -- J.K. Simmons, Lou Taylor Pucci, Julia Ormand, and the revelatory Cara Seymour all gave the performances of their careers. And despite having a soundtrack that could raise Jerry Garcia from his grave, there isn't an overindulgent beat in the whole damn film. I laughed. I cried. I laughed while I cried. And when it was over, we got to listen to the surviving members of the Grateful Dead talk about why they were so personally invested in this movie. (Hint: It's based on a real life Case Study by Oliver Sacks called "The Last Hippie.") If it's not on the Oscar shortlist for 2012, well then I just don't know what.

From there, the best I can do is tell you which movies I DIDN'T get to see at Sundance, but really wanted to. So here goes.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey: Okay, so maybe it's because my kid is obsessed with Elmo right now, but this Documentary from director Constance Marks follows the career and anonymous celebrity of Kevin Clash -- the voice of Elmo -- and I was desperate to see it. Rightfully, the film took the Special Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary category. I mean seriously...how lovable is this guy?

Also in the Documentary competition, Morgan Spurlock returned to Park City with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold a skewering of product placement in entertainment that looks at the terrifying future of advertising, and while I heard mixed reviews of Jennifer Siebel Newsom's Miss Representation, I really wish I could have caught that film's Q&A, I loved what Siebel Newsom had to say in her filmmaker spotlight.

On the narrative end, Sam Levinson pulled a Jason Reitman, and showed those crying nepotism where they could shove it by graciously accepting the coveted and ever-prestigious Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for his screenwriting AND directorial debut Another Happy Day, which, naturally I also wish I could have seen.

Kevin Smith, who launched his career in Park City seventeen years ago when his film Clerks was snatched up by Miramax, returned to the festival with this year with Red State. The film got a ton of buzz this festival, both for its controversial subject matter (the horror film follows a "Fred Phelps-like" character as he takes his beliefs and followers to the extreme) and for Smith's bait-and-switch announcement at the film's Q&A: Rather than auction off the film to the highest bidding distributor from the stage, as he alluded to on Twitter, he purchased his own film for $20 and announced plans to self-distribute the movie under his own SMODcast Pictures banner, using his VERY LARGE and dedicated social media following in an attempt to publicize his 4 Million Dollar honest-to-god-indie (his first since "Clerks") without spending a dime. You can see the much-blogged-about, fairly epic Q&A rant HERE.

While I was a loyal Smith fan in the early days of his career, I've come to regard him as pretty ass-y over the years, even going so far as to unfollow him on Twitter not-so-long-ago -- the ultimate insult, obviously. But reading his post-Sundance wrap-up, I was once again reminded of the dude whose unique voice and meteoric rise had so pumped me up as a young aspiring director. The dude who found a way to interact with his fans before Twitter made it user-friendly. The dude who, when Sundance didn't accept that short film that I'd poured my blood sweat and tears into, picked up my broken ego and featured that short on his website as part of his first ever Movies Askew film festival, thereby introducing me to the world of social media, via the incredible message board community of people who had come together around his work.

Anyway, the festival I attended this year for those 36 whirlwind hours, despite the fact that with 70 sales it was a record breaking year for deal-making, seemed a far cry from the hopeful, energetic, indie spirit that ruled Main Street just eight years ago. Worse, after spending hours in line listening to the rantings of burnt out veteran volunteers and local festival attendees, it left me feeling like I was seeing a distinct loss of respect for the movie go-er, the fans that make it so important in the first place.

Reading Smith's post over on his movie blog THE RED STATEMENTS (in which, despite what you may have read he does NOT really call Mel Gibson a role model) got me kind of psyched about what the guy is doing. REALLY psyched, actually. Because HELL yeah we should be self-distributing. Sure, he kind of went about it like a d-bag, but working in the movie industry is like clinging to a runaway, rabid, half-psychotic horse without a saddle -- the Golden Age has long passed, and creatives more often than not find themselves at the mercy of finance dudes whose only interest is the bottom line. Can't sell it overseas? Kill it. I see it happen every day, and I have to be honest, I'm liking Smith's approach a whole hell of a lot better. He's putting the power in the hands of his fans. And I'm pretty sure that's what true independent film making is about.

So yeah. That took a weird turn, but I think it's the key conversation that's arisen out of this year's festival. Even as I wrote this post my (non-pro) Mom called me to ask if I knew what "SMOGcast" was as she found herself riveted by a Kevin Smith interview on NPR. It's kind of awesome though, isn't it? Social Media is giving all kinds of artists their own distribution platform. I'm so excited to see what comes of it.


Morgan (The818) is a blogger and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. She overshares her personal life - complete with curse words - at The818.com, talks art and design over at Cargoh.com, and tweets: @the818.


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